14 November 2021
In 2010, the Dutch private club De Witte asked me to make a speech at their monumental building in The Hague. They wanted me to talk about the reasons for the Philippines falling so far behind other countries in Southeast Asia. By comparing statistics for 2010 with those of 1950, it wasn’t difficult to establish that indeed the Philippines had not done well. The harder question is why this happened. I discussed three possible reasons. First, colonialism. This was a widely accepted explanation in the 1970s: the US had prevented the Philippines from finding its own path, not only during the colonial time, but also afterwards through various treaties that were not favorable for the Philippines. However, since most other countries in East Asia had also been colonized that is not a satisfactory explanation. A second reason, that was often heard in the 1980s is culture. There was said to be something in Filipino culture that hampered the development of a modern society. In 1987 the Atlantic Monthly published an article by James Fallow that upset many Filipinos. Entitled: A Damaged Culture, it argues that the Philippines illustrate how culture can keep a country blessed with many resources, poor. However, since there are many similarities between the culture of the Philippines and that of neighboring countries, culture I suggested was also not a good explanation.
I finally settled for political governance as the reason for the Philippines being such a laggard. Many view the country’s political system as dysfunctional. A small elite has ruled the country for the last century or so and political positions are often pursued not for public service but for private gain. There are no political parties with defined policies and a clear vision of society; the existing parties are primarily vehicles for individuals to achieve political office and changing party affiliation happens frequently. It amounts essentially to what might be called a half-way modern system where institutions (parliament, the judiciary, the civil service) are weak and all power is personalized. This has made it very difficult for the country to pursue the sensible, middle-of-the-road policies that would have translated into the rapid development experienced by neighboring countries (1) .
These thoughts came back to me when I was asked last week to open a workshop where two local governance projects were discussed. As the country is preparing once more for national and local elections it is not easy to be optimistic about improvements in the way the country is run. However, I suggested to the workshop participants that at the local level there is plenty of scope for good local governance. The priorities pursued by their two projects were in my view exactly right: sustainable local development and ‘co-creation’. The former refers to the importance to draw up development plans that are sustainable and reflect the priorities of the people, while co-creation is a term used to describe a new kind of local governance, no longer top-down, but with the participation of the entire community: business sector, civil society, local administration, etc. In co-creation there is a strong emphasis on accountability of elected officials, and it would be good if this were a major theme in the coming elections.
The projects are seen as pilots and we of course hope that they will succeed, that these concepts will take root and that a stronger Filipino society will emerge from the local level up.
1. This is consistent with the arguments made in Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, published in 2012.
Gerry van der Linden is a former Vice President of ADB and is now active in microcredit and governance NGOs in the Philippines